Bordeaux is still a bargain. Not the one it was two or three years ago, certainly, when the dollar was much stronger. However, many outstanding red bordeaux are still available for $10 or less, including several that would rival the best buys of the macho dollar era.
That many consumers have mistakenly assumed that bordeaux is priced out of reach is not surprising. The recent news from Bordeaux has been anything but reassuring. The 1987 vintage looks small in quantity and mediocre at best in quality. And owing to the weak dollar, many wines imported in the last year have landed at prices that are 40 to 50 per cent higher than those they replace. That's the bad news.
The good news is that many importers and merchants are selling stocks that were bought some time back with the stronger dollar. In addition, the staggering quantities produced in 1985 and 1986 appear to be having the effect consumers have hoped for. At some chateaux, according to importers, the theme is no longer "Take the Money and Run." It's "Let's Make a Deal."
Most of the best buys today are to be found among the myriad crus bourgeois and petit chateaux that dot the Bordeaux region. Those wines occupy the two rungs of the Bordeaux hierarchy just below the grands crus classes ("great classified growths") included in the still-influential 1855 classification of the Me'doc and other formal and informal classifications of other communes. In the past, the lack of classified standing truly meant something. But that is changing.
The crus bourgeois and petit chateaux have increasingly adopted the techniques of the crus classes, including use of more new oak to age the wines, better selection (the bottling of only the best lots), and updated vineyard practices and winemaking. As a result, the quality gap has narrowed significantly.
As with all bordeaux, and many other wines, the key to enjoyment is to drink them at the right stage of maturity. Two great misconceptions cloud this area.
The first is that all good bordeaux needs to be aged. That is simply untrue. Many excellent bordeaux are vinified to be at their best the day they leave the chateau. In addition, some vintages, for example 1980, produce few wines worth the bother of long term cellaring. Many of these wines make delightful drinking, however, and have proved nice to have around while we've waited for the more intense and tannic '70s, '75s and '78s to mature.
The second misconception is that wines mature in a steady progression from too young to perfect maturity to too old. That myth has probably been the source of more disappointed wine drinkers than any other. In fact, the maturation process is more like a series of windows of opportunity.
The first such window, and one that is often under- appreciated, occurs when wines are young. After a short initial phase of bottle shock, many young wines, including those capable of long aging, are wondrously delicious, exploding with ripe, opulent fruit. But then, perhaps in as short a time as a few months, they close up like a vise. The wines of the 1970 vintage, once so charmingly fruity, are just now emerging from a prolonged winter solstice during which they showed little more than tannin and acidity. The 1982s appear to be following the same pattern. However glorious they may ultimately turn out to be, it would have been a shame not to have tried them in their youth.
Even after the awkward middle phase has passed, a wine doesn't simply reach maturity and stay there. It has good days and bad days, or perhaps more accurately, good years and bad years. A wine may be good in its 10th year, flat in its 12th, only to reemerge spectacularly in its 15th. The only sure way to tell whether a window of opportunity has opened is to pop a cork.
A good bordeaux cellar, even one of a case or two, should have some wines for present drinking and some to lay down. Thus, the following wines are grouped accordingly. Wines are listed within groups in order of preference based on quality and value for the price. All are under $10. (Prices are approximate.)
Where a single shop is listed as a direct importer, that store's price is the one listed. Because bordeaux is traded on the open market, however, other stores may also carry the wine, sometimes at a different price. Your retailer can order from the wholesaler listed in brackets.
Ready-to Drink Wines
Malescasse 1985 (Lamarque, Haut-Me'doc; $6): An astonishing value, has the finesse to pass for a $12-$15 classified growth; classic spicy, new oak bouquet; fine, cabernet-dominated cedary flavors, well-knit fruit; light, but refined, in a Margaux-like style. Delicious now, but plenty of tannin to insure two or more years of improvement with cellaring. (Direct import of MacArthur Beverages)
Pitray 1985 (Co~tes de Castillon; $6.): Pitray produced a superb 1982, but its 1985, reminiscent of a wine from the St. Emilion co~tes, is even better, with even more of the chunky, abundant fruit that made its '82 the leading candidate for petit chateau of the vintage. Has the structure to age, but my experience is that petit chateaux are usually better in the blush of youth. (Direct import of Calvert Woodley)
Tayac 1985 (Co~tes de Bourg; $6): The best Tayac yet, bright, berry-like, succulent fruit in medium-bodied style that matches well with poultry or red meat. Because of its versatility and present drinkability, my recommendation for the house bordeaux. (Beitzell)
Du Moulin 1985 ($4.50): Not as complex as the preceding wines, but impossible to beat at this price; much lush fruit, good balance and smooth finish. (Forman)
Des Tours 1983 (Montagne-St. Emilion; $8): Now at its peak, fragrant with subtle spice scents on the nose, light-bodied with soft, supple merlot fruit on the palate. (Forman)
Monbousquet 1985 (St. Emilion; $10): Obviously vinified in a lighter style for early consumption, a good wine with smooth, cherry-like fruit, well seasoned with new oak. Ready now. (Forman)
Greysac 1985 (Me'doc; $7): One of the old standbys, this is a soft, fruity, well made Greysac that is easy to like and drinkable now. But will we ever again see the depth and complexity that marked this chateau's memorable 1979? (Kronheim)
Moulin de Laborde 1983 (Listrac; $10): Stylish and balanced, this wine has a light touch of oak and excellent intensity of fruit. This is the second label of Fourcas Loubaney, an up-and-coming cru bourgeoise, which has produced a knockout '85 that should be arriving shortly. (Washington Wholesale)
Lamarque 1982 (Haut-Me'doc; $6): Has reached a lovely maturity; sensuous, exotic fruit, light to medium body. (Direct Import of Morris Miller Liquor)
Lescours 1982 (St. Emilion; $8): Though light in color and flavor intensity, this wine has an exotic, spicy bouquet and lacy, merlot-dominated fruit that renders it quite interesting. Fully mature. (Beitzell)
Ferrande 1985 (Graves; $10): Well balanced and smooth; soft, fleshy fruit, with the distinctive graves gout de terroir, buy a few bottles to drink now, while keeping a few bottles in the cellar to improve over the next year. (Wines Ltd)
Wines to Cellar
Coufran 1982 (Haut-Me'doc; $9): Like La Lagune at the southern extreme of the Haut-Me'doc, Coufran, at the very northern extreme, outdid itself in 1982 by producing a wine with an exotic opulence that marks its exceptional years. Made from 85 percent merlot, a rarity for a left bank wine. Rich, earthy bouquet starting to emerge; full, velvety flavors on the palate, but the significant tannins dictate some additional cellaring. An overlooked gem from the 1982 vintage (Beitzell)
Arnauld 1985 (Haut-Me'doc; $8): Perfumed, red-fruit aromas on nose; medium to full bodied; lush and mouthfilling on the palate, reminiscent of Chateau Giscours, just to the south in Margaux. Should greatly reward two to four years cellaring. (Direct import of MacArthur Beverages)
Moulin de La Bridane 1983 (St. Julien; $7-$8): With its vineyards nestled among the second growth Leovilles, Moulin de La Bridane produced a classic St. Julien with powerful, deep fruit and distinct aging potential. Three years or more of cellaring needed to smooth out the tough tannins. (Direct import of Calvert Woodley)
Potensac 1983 (Me'doc; $9-$10): Owned by Michel Delon, the brilliant winemaker of Chateau Leoville-Las Cases, Chateau Potensac is unquestionably the "first growth" of the Bas Me'doc (The Bas Medoc and the Haut-Medoc together make up the region called the Me'doc. Wines with the appellation "Me'doc," however, are from the Bas Me'doc only.) Like Las-Cases, Potensac is structured to improve with age.
Dauzac 1983 (Margaux; $10): Big, perfumed, vanilla-oak bouquet befitting a classified growth Margaux; plump, cherry fruit on the palate, enjoyable now, but one or two years of cellaring will permit the fruit to marry better with the strong oak. (Kronheim)
Du Moulin Rouge 1983 (Haut-Me'doc; $7): Fleshy, cabernet-dominated wine that has classic, straightforward haut-me'doc flavors and good complexity. Solid wine at a good price, drink now or cellar one to two years. (Direct import of Calvert Woodley)
Villars 1985 (Fronsac; $10): Keep an eye out for this and other wines from Fronsac, as that commune is widely regarded as Bordeaux's up and coming region. Villars displays an intriguing, minty nose, with complex, deep merlot fruit on the palate. At least two years of cellaring a must. (Direct import of Calvert Woodley.)
D'Arcins 1985 (Haut-Me'doc; $8): Complex cedary bouquet; tight knit, deep fruit on the palate marks an age-worthy wine. Still young, but excellent potential. (Wines Ltd.)
Hanteillan 1985: (Haut-Me'doc; $8): Now under the management of Catherine Blasco, a graphic artist and former sheep herder turned winemaker, this is a robust, full-flavored wine with good depth of fruit. A chateau to watch. (Beitzell, available shortly.)
California cabernet is usually bigger, fleshier and fruitier than bordeaux, which generally shows greater elegance and refinement. There are exceptions, however, or at least there are wines that blur the distinction. For almost a decade now, Napa's Pine Ridge Winery has somehow managed to produce well made, sometimes spectacular, California cabernet in a decidedly bordeaux style. Now I think I know why, at least in part. Under Bordeaux-trained enologist Gary Andrus, Pine Ridge was among the first wineries to blend in small but significant amounts of cabernet franc and malbec, traditional bordeaux grape varieties rarely used in California. The effect is to add a distinctive perfume to the bouquet, and to add a layer of complexity to the mostly cabernet and merlot wines. Pine Ridge's 1984 Stag's Leap Cuve'e ($27) ranks with the best California cabernets I have tasted from that excellent vintage, a sleek, impeccably proportioned wine with the characteristic berry-like fruit of the Stag's Leap area. The 1984 Rutherford Cuve'e ($15) does not have nearly as much finesse, but delivers lots of tasty fruit along with a decided pinch of Rutherford Dust gout de terroir. Both will improve with age, something that cannot be said about most California cabernets.
A California cabernet and a French white burgundy have been chosen as the featured wines for the National Symphony Orchestra/WGMS Radiothon set for March 11-13 on WGMS (103.5 FM, 570 AM). Both the Fetzer 1985 Lake County Cabernet and the Pierre Blanche Macon Villages 1986 are solid wines of their type, and a $100 contribution allows the donor to choose one case of either the red or the white, or one mixed case. Also available are a set of four National Symphony embossed wine glasses, at $20. Proceeds benefit the National Symphony. Wines or glasses may be ordered during the Radiothon or in advance through the Radiothon catalog. For more information call the National Symphony at (202) 785-8100.